I sometimes have my students do an exercise in which they draw a picture of themselves in the center of a page and form a series of rings around it. In each ring, they draw other people who play various parts in their life. First is the inner circle: parents, siblings, close friends. Next is the second tier: teachers, extended family, neighbors. The outer ring contains the bit players, some of whom might only be known by a first name or depended on for a specific service. As I remind the class, each of those bit players is the central figure in his or her own life, plus a member of the inner circle in any number of others. Perhaps they were born into that inner circle as a child or sibling. Perhaps they entered it as a spouse. Or perhaps that connection began in the sandbox at nursery school, in the lunch line at summer camp, or in a pickup basketball game at the park. "I've been trying hard to find the people that I won't leave behind," Brian Wilson once sang mournfully. That is an acute state of loneliness. Most of us find at least a few such people without trying hard at all.
I could easily complete my own assignment and fill in those rings with the people closest to me. I have a clear enough mental image of where those stick figures would go. When I was younger, there was a feeling of inevitability about them, and not just with family; some part of me felt like every favorite teacher, every intimate friend, somehow had to be in that inner ring. When a bond between two people grows strong or deep enough, the circumstances of their meeting take on a sanctified quality, as if the cosmos were pushing them together in anticipation of the rewards to follow. I am old enough now to recognize that as romantic absurdity. People enter our lives by haphazard chance, and sometimes we make the most of those random encounters. That person whom we have confided in for decades might have been a bit player in our lives if the teacher had assigned her to a seat one row over in kindergarten.
"Interview with the Songwriter," my poem featured this week in the Journal of Radical Wonder, is about that notion. It was inspired by my days as an entertainment reporter for the Los Angeles Times and its community papers -- a time when I had a great many superficial encounters with a great many interview subjects. These were my kind of people, for sure: artists, poets, entrepreneurs, dreamers, ones with whom I might fill hours dissecting literature or pushing the boundaries of formal conversation. Instead, I spoke to each of them on deadline, with an assignment to get the information I needed, craft a catchy lede, and slip the quotes into the right places. I wrote a lot of stories during those encounters, and made no close friends. Yes, some of those people belong to my email list or view my posts on Facebook, where to "friend" someone is a verb. Compared to the relationships that we truly treasure, which often host an entire private language of references and in-jokes, that monosyllable seems pale indeed.
I think "Interview with the Songwriter" was based on a true story. Perhaps it's telling that I can't quite say. As I recall, one time, I spent an hour or so talking with a local songwriter who had a new album or upcoming show, and I realized that many of our tastes overlapped. For lack of a name, I'll call him Pete. He was warm and gregarious, as hungry artists often are when you give them publicity. As I scribbled notes, I wondered if Pete and I might have become close friends if we had met earlier in life. Could we have written songs together? Perhaps my words might have fit his melodies. By the time we met, we were too busy to think of that -- "both of us with rings and planners," as the poem puts it. We could have met again, but that would have required crossing something off the planners.
That's what Robert Frost's "The Road Not Taken" is about, as much as we misread it as an inspirational poem. We make myopic choices and hope that they pay off. We fantasize about going back in time and trying the other road, when really we know that we're stuck with our choice. As time goes on, we accumulate those "mights" more and more. We might have picked another college, pursued another career, sought another person as our collaborator. Would we have ended up happier? There is no way to know. At this moment, I am completing this blog entry, and Pete may be at work on another song. He may not need a cowriter to help with the lyrics.
This is the blog of Michael Miller, a longtime journalist, poet, publisher and teacher. Check here for musings, observations, commentary and assorted bits of gratitude.